As barriers that kept some people from identifying as transgender disappear, an organisation’s response is more important than ever. Here are some common concerns, and how to address them.
The so-called ‘bathroom bills’ are sparking debate about transgender inclusivity across the US, with input from politicians and celebrities alike. The conversation about the rights of trans individuals goes beyond the political and social spheres, though – businesses are the next frontier.
“More people are feeling safe to disclose being themselves, including in their workplace,” says Sally Goldner, executive director at Transgender Victoria. “Some employers are handling it well, but there is still a distance for some to travel to overcome their lack of understanding.”
For those who are unsure where to start, Goldner says employers should only ask about gender when necessary, such as for affirmative action reports or legal forms. When a business does need to know, best practice is to make forms and documents ‘flexible’ to cover gender diverse people.
There are also some practical reasons that an employer might need to ask about gender, says Hannah Ellis, principal at The Workplace employment lawyers. “For example, if an employer has different uniforms for male and female employees and male and female toilets, then the employer is entitled to ask a transgender employee with which gender they identify.”
Addressing negative noise
The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) reports a “small number of complaints” since 2013, the year gender identity was included in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 as a protected attribute. Complaints include employers not recognising the transgender employee’s preferred gender by refusing name and clothing changes, and negative remarks from colleagues.
However, AHRC president Professor Gillian Triggs says the reported number of complaints “contrasts with the substantial body of research that demonstrates that transgender people in Australia commonly experience discrimination in the workplace.”
Dr Gale Bearman, GP and gender specialist at the Brisbane Gender Clinic, says that bullying and discrimination against transgender employees is usually covert. A colleague might deliberately offend them by not using their correct name, title and pronoun, or make non-specific complaints about them, she says.
“If an employer has a transitioning person and suddenly two or three people start complaining about that person’s work standard or something about them, then they should be wary about those complaints,” Dr Bearman says.
Employers should also be mindful about common misconceptions surrounding the mental health of transgender people. While there is a higher amount of anxiety, depression and suicide in the transgender community, these issues largely stem from how transgender people have been treated, not because they are “inherently more mentally ill” than non-trans people, she explains. “Trans people don’t have higher rates of mental health issues than we would normally associate as being a problem at work, such as psychosis or personality disorders.”
Effects of hormone therapy
Another misconception is that hormone therapy can make a transitioning person mentally unstable. Employers should expect the same variation in side effects as those experienced by any employee undergoing hormone changes, be it through pregnancy, cancer treatment or menopause, Dr Bearman says.
Leave requests from transgender workers for medical treatment should be given the same consideration as annual or personal leave requests. However, due to the sensitive nature of an employee’s transition, Ellis stresses that managers need to be acutely aware of maintaining confidentiality.
“If trans people can just be themselves, then they can be a productive employee and everyone wins,” says Goldner.
Case study: Katey’s story
Katey, an IT worker with an arts and entertainment organisation, had been with her employer for more than two years before she transitioned. Although many of her colleagues knew she identified as female outside work and were supportive, Katey still felt a mix of terror and exhilaration walking into work for the first time as a woman.
Katey’s transition at work wasn’t a snap process. With guidance from transgender representative groups she developed a ‘transition plan’ with her manager. She emailed colleagues about the transition and her new name. “It took me half an hour to actually press ‘send’!” she says.
Katey returned as “the real me” and to overwhelmingly supportive messages from colleagues.
A small number of women took issue with her using the female toilets. She says initially senior management suggested she use a toilet on another level. She told the CEO the arrangement made her feel like a “freak” and so the CEO spoke with female employees, and the issue was resolved.
Eighteen months later, Katey says there haven’t been any other problems. Employers can support transitioning employees by not making “a big deal” out of it, she says. “Let staff know that it won’t change anything. It’s business as usual.”